A union steel worker holds up a sign during a rally outside the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, Thursday, December 6, 2012, as Senate Republicans introduced “right to work” legislation in the waning days of the legislative session. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
In the state where workers sat down in Flint General Motors plants seventy-five years ago and emboldened the industrial labor movement that would give birth to the American middle class, Republican legislators on Thursday voted to gut basic labor rights.
Union leaders warned that, if organized labor can be so battered in the union heartland of Michigan, it can—and may—be attacked anywhere. And the national significance of the move was highlighted by a statement from the Obama White House, which said:
President Obama has long opposed so-called “right-to-work” laws and he continues to oppose them now. The President believes our economy is stronger when workers get good wages and good benefits, and he opposes attempts to roll back their rights. Michigan—and its workers’ role in the revival of the US automobile industry—is a prime example of how unions have helped build a strong middle class and a strong American economy.
But, while the president carried Michigan by a 54-44 margin on November 6, neither he nor his fellow Democrats were calling the shots Thursday.
After Republican leaders announced Thursday morning that they intended to enact so-called “right to work” legislation—which is always better described as “no rights at work” legislation—the Michigan state House voted Thursday afternoon to eliminate basic union organizing and workplace protections that generations of American workers fought to establish. Several hours later, the Michigan state Senate did the same thing, as part of a bold anti-labor initiative launched in coordination with a Koch Brothers–funded Americans for Prosperity project to “pave the way for right to work in states across our nation.”
As the Republicans launched the attack on unions and their members, Americans for Prosperity—a group developed and funded by right-wing industrialists and billionaire campaign donors Charles and David Koch—was in the thick of things. AFP recruited conservatives to show up at the state Capitol in Lansing to counter union protests and prepared materials supporting the Michigan initiative, including a fifteen-page booklet titled “Unions: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: How forced unionization has harmed workers and Michigan.” Within minutes of the announcement by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder that Republicans would ram through the “right to work” legislation, AFP was hailing the move in formal statements “as the shot heard around the world for workplace freedom.”